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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, November 22, 2002

Meritage serves excellent entrées, desserts

By Matthew Gray
Advertiser Restaurant Critic

Service at Meritage, open since October at Restaurant Row, is friendly and helpful, and only likely to get better with time.

Deborah Booker • The Honolulu Advertiser


Restaurant Row, 500 Ala Moana Blvd.

Lunch, 11 a.m.-2 p.m. weekdays

Dinner, 5-9 p.m. daily


Very good

Meritage is a wonderful restaurant.

Its name was taken from the wine term that identifies handcrafted wines blended from two or more traditional Bordeaux varietals, with no single variety making up more than 90 percent of the final blend. "Meritage" was coined as a name blending the words "merit" and "heritage" to identify wines that represent the highest form of the winemaker's art, which is blending, to distinguish these wines from the more generic (and much less sexy) "red table wine."

Chef Mariano Lalica is the maestro of taste who runs this kitchen quite adeptly. You may remember him from Acqua Restaurant (Hawaiian Regent Hotel) several years back. He's teamed up again with Laurent Chouari, a very classy act, who manages the front of the house, and William Cheng, whom you might remember as the manager of the Surf Room/Mai Tai Bar at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. Together, these three friends-turned-partners seem to be making all the right moves.

The first time I visited was for my friend Dennis' birthday. There were several of us in the party, which gave me a great opportunity to taste everyone's food. We were seated upstairs in a very cozy corner of this sophisticated and unhurried place.

We began with the delicious appetizer sampler platter ($14, enough for two to three people and $24, enough for four to six). It included fresh 'ahi carpaccio (with stone-ground mustard vinaigrette and chive-infused oil), duck and asparagus spring roll (with citrus chili-pepper sauce), oyster en croute (baked with a mushroom duxelle and fennel), and finally, eggplant and smoked mozzarella cakes with roasted pepper aioli and pistachio pesto. This was arranged between mounds of fresh greens dressed with a balsamic dressing.

The seafood martini ($8) is a fun concept; rock shrimp, lobster and 'ahi carpaccio in a large blue martini glass, combined with greens. Most of us at the table thought this one was too leafy, closer to a salad with bits of seafood than the more preferable other way around.

I'd skip the wild mushroom gratinée ($5), which didn't sing, and instead go for the balsamic-braised pork spareribs ($6) with red cabbage and sweet pepper slaw, a tangy departure from the usual too-sweet version of this dish.

We passed around a crock of the classic French onion soup ($5), with a thick layer of melted fontina on top and a large, garlicky crouton underneath. We all agreed this was yummy.

The entrées are especially notable here. You absolutely must try the braised veal shank cassoulet ($23), which is quite similar to osso buco except that it's served with garlic sausage, duck and calypso beans. The meat is drop-dead tender. You may want to ask for mashed potatoes on the side if the included beans don't completely satisfy your starchy desires.

The lobster fricassee ($19) was terrific as well, sweet chunks of lobster combined with artichoke hearts and sweet peppers in a luscious butter sauce. Once again, ask for a side of risotto or mashers in addition to the included pesto toast.

The grilled Long Island duck confit ($17) was fabulous, finished with a drizzle of balsamic syrup and spiked with the sweet kiss of beautiful fresh figs and ginger-pear sauce. The bouillabaisse ($20) was fragrant with saffron, quite light in body and filled with pieces of fresh fish, prawns, clams, mussels, scallops and lobster. It wasn't as hearty as most, but it was very satisfying.

Meat-eaters will have a field day here. You'll love the grilled filet mignon ($27) with Rondele (a garlic-and-herb-flavored cream cheese), potato pancake and bourguignon sauce, as well as the roasted rack of lamb ($23) with pistachio herb crust and rosemary merlot sauce.

Save room for dessert. Ashley Nakano, a gifted pastry chef, will seduce your sweet tooth. Get any souffle of the day ($7) for a light and rich treat. One night it was a to-die-for pumpkin souffle, the next it was a version flavored with Amaretto. Her macadamia mocha mousse cake ($5), passionfruit cheesecake ($5) and tiramisu ($6) all should win awards.

The food here, for the most part, is excellent. Service is fun, friendly and quite helpful. The Meritage team is coming together swiftly, having just opened in October. I sense they will only improve.

Reach Matthew Gray at mgray@honoluluadvertiser.com.